Civil Liberties

Hands Off Americans' Private Information, Tech Industry Tells President

Major companies oppose government end-runs around encryption



Last September, Scott Shackford asked, "What does it say about the state of Americans' relationship with their own government that its largest tech company can use the ability to conceal private information from authorities as a selling point?" He referred to plans voiced by both Apple and Google to encrypt smartphones by default so that only the owners would have access to stored data. Previously, Google offered encryption as an option, and Apple retained some access to devices it sold. With growing concern over government snooping post-Snowden, improved privacy has become very desirable feature for many people. Needless to say, the federal government has not been happy about the tech giants' stance.

"What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law," FBI Director James Comey whined in response to Apple's and and Google's announced plans.

Months later, during a Senate hearing, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson complained that "the marketplace is demanding deeper and deeper encryption into places where the warrant authority of the government does not extend." He added that "with encryption there are communications…records of which are simply not being maintained because of the added security that is being put in place because of the privacy demands that exist in the marketplace.

For their part, tech companies continue their push for strong encryption, most recently with a letter to the president warning about the danger to America's economy and people's liberties "[s]hould the U.S. government require companies to weaken encryption technology."

The commercial fallout of surveillance fears to American companies, a study finds, could be as high as $35 billion.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) are among the handful of legislators who also slapped back at intrusive officials, pointing out that the government helped create demand for privacy products with its own actions. And there is demand for privacy. One in three American make some effort to hide their data from prying eyes—the government in particular. A new Gallup poll finds that Americans continue to prioritize civil liberties over "anti-terrorism" efforts by more than a two-to-one margin.

The public just doesn't share government officials' preference for security over freedom. By and large, people are not ready to compromise due process, privacy, or freedom of speech in the name of some search for imaginary threats by overbearing law enforcement officers, intrusive intelligence snoops, or power-hungry U.S. Attorneys.

In keeping with their customers' priorities, tech companies have also pushed back against the government. A letter sent yesterday to President Obama by the Information Technology Industry Council and the Software & Information Industry Association cautions, in part:

We are opposed to any policy actions or measures that would undermine encryption as an available and effective tool. As you know, encryption helps to secure many aspects of our daily lives. Encryption is an essential asset of the global digital infrastructure, enabling security and confidentiality for transactions as well as assurances to individuals that their communications are private and information is protected. For example, the rapid growth in online commerce would not have happened but for consumers' trust that their payment information is secure. Consumer trust in digital products and services is an essential component enabling continued economic growth of the online marketplace.

Accordingly, we urge you not to pursue any policy or proposal that would require or encourage companies to weaken these technologies, including the weakening of encryption or creating encryption "work-arounds." We appreciate that, where appropriate, law enforcement has the legitimate need for certain information to combat crime and threats. However, mandating the weakening of encryption or encryption "work-arounds" is not the way to address this need. Doing so would compromise the security of ICT products and services, rendering them more vulnerable to attacks and would erode consumers' trust in the products and services they rely on for protecting their information.

In addition to these security and trust concerns, the U.S. policy position on encryption will send a signal to the rest of the world. Should the U.S. government require companies to weaken encryption technology, such requirements will legitimize similar efforts by foreign governments. This would threaten the global marketplace as well as deprive individuals of certain liberties.

The two organizations, notably, represent Apple and Google, which have already provoked the feds, as well as Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and other major companies that serve huge markets and have the potential to protect the public's privacy—or damage it under the weight of government commands and threats.

Read the whole letter here.